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Coach K's Sweet 16: First Final Four in 1986

Coach K made his first Final Four and national championship game in 1986.
Coach K made his first Final Four and national championship game in 1986.

This article is the second of 16 in our "Coach K's Sweet 16" series, where we will walk back through the legendary head coach's career and recap his most iconic moments. For the first moment, click here. 

The year is 1986. A young, struggling-to-turn-the-program-around coach sets the stage for a decent sixth season of his budding career. He has four seniors: Jay Bilas, a scrappy, undersized, four-year starting center; Johnny Dawkins, the co-captain and leading point guard; David Henderson, an electric shooting guard and a co-captain and Mark Alarie, Arizona’s 1982 Player of the Year and the team’s power forward. 

This group alone will later gain the budding Mike Krzyzewski recognition (to this day) for the highest scoring single recruiting class in men's college basketball history. Such mature talent and understanding of Krzyzewski’s programming combined with the junior point guard Tommy Amaker’s skills on the court created a strong starting lineup, one that even went seven deep with Billy King and Danny Ferry off the bench.

Krzyzewski knew that this could be their year. He had the veterans. He laid the foundation. As February approached and ACC play began, Krzyzewski entered 1986 with as the No.1 team in the nation for the first time in his career. To start their tear, they beat Clemson 77-69, setting a school record for most victories in a season with 28. And soon after, Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to beat North Carolina and claim an ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1966, finishing the ACC season with a perfect 15-0 home record for the first time since 1978.  

Krzyzewski attributes such sweeping success, in retrospect from a 2016 article, to the team’s strength as people. 

"I was sure of character when I recruited them," Krzyzewski said. "They’re all so smart, successful, people-savvy, highly ambitious and team players. They had every ingredient that you would want to build a championship-level team with."

The weather turned warmer, and March of 1986 loomed around the corner. A 68-60 win against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament awarded Krzyzewski his first 30-win season, and soon after, a nail-biting 68-67 win against Georgia Tech secured him his first ACC tournament championship.

Burnt out but full of spirit, Dawkins and Henderson lead the Blue Devils into the NCAA tournament as a No.1 seed, a force to be reckoned with. However, minutes into the first round, it was clear that it was going to be a fight. No. 16-seed Mississippi Valley State led Duke by seven points well into the second half, and the Blue Devils had already accumulated 23 turnovers. A promising look at the championship slowly dwindled, until Dawkins kicked it into overdrive, carrying the team on his back and scoring 16 of his 27 points in the last 12 minutes. Duke narrowly escaped Mississippi Valley State 85-78 and propelled onward to beat Old Dominion and DePaul in the heat of March Madness.

Coach K and his players went head to head with Navy, led by David Robinson, in the Elite Eight. Left-handed Dawkins had no problem penetrating Navy’s zone, totaling 28 points that game. Amaker handled the defense, and the team closed the half with an 18-2 run, never looking back and soundly handling the Midshipmen 71-50.

They did it. Coach K did it. Duke was going to the Final Four for the first time under Krzyzewski’s reign. The four veteran seniors, who went 11-17 together as freshmen, would go on to play Kansas in the Final Four, defeating them 71-67, and giving Krzyzewski a shot at the national championship. In a heartbreaking twist, Louisville’s center, Pervis Ellison, hit two free throws with 27 seconds left in the game to take the championship out from under the Blue Devils.

It was a year that set a precedent. Krzyzewski's very first trip to the Final Four set a precedent of success for the next four decades of Duke men’s basketball. 

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